Researchers in South Africa believe they may have uncovered a brand new “relative” to humans, and they have named the new branch of the family tree Homo naledi.
The researchers said they stumbled on the find while deep in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. The area where the remains were found has been dubbed the Dinaledi Chamber, and the species was named naledi, or star.
“Everywhere that my headlamp shone, I could see that there was bone on the floor. Not full bone but fragments of material,” Marina Elliott, one of the authors of the study detailing the find, told BBC News. “It was an incredible thing to see.”
By piecing together the bones, the researchers found a mix of both ape-like and human-like features. They’re still working to determine how old the bones are, but Eric Delson, an anthropologist from Lehman College in New York told the Associated Press that the finds appear similar to another group that dated to around 2 million years ago. Researchers said the newly discovered species most resembles other hominids such as Homo erectus, Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis.
Ian Tattersall, curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said the find was incredibly important and could shed important light on Homo sapiens, modern humans, as a species and the many other early hominoids.
“It’s really very exciting,” Tattersall told ABC News. “What this is doing is definitely increasing the perception that we have -- that evolution of hominids was one of vigorous experimentation of evolution.”
Delson and Tattersall were not involved with the research group that made the discovery in South Africa.
The prevailing thinking among scholars today is that evolution from apes to man was not a direct line, but one with many detours, Tattersall said.
“We’re [probably] looking at a cousin rather than an ancestor, but who knows,” Tattersall said of the new find. “But the picture is very, very clearly a luxuriantly branching bush experimenting with all the ways to be a hominids.”
The new species had a small skull with a small “braincase” that didn’t allow for the same brain size we have today, researchers said. Additionally, Homo naledi had human-like hands and feet, but Tattersall said it was impressive that it also had climbing features, more similar to an ape.
Lead author Lee Berger, professor at the Evolutionary Studies Institute and Center of Excellence in PalaeoSciences at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, said it was not clear how Homo nadeli may be related to modern Homo sapiens.
“We need to be very cautious about proclaiming everything we find as the direct ancestors of humans, it’s clear there are a lot of experiments going on out there,” Berger told BBC News of the evolutionary process.
The researchers found 15 individuals in all and suspect that they were brought to the cave after they had died as part of a burial method.